The history of the interpretation of these two verses has been a history of conflict between two very different viewpoints. Some have held that these two verses are actually a further prophecy of woe and judgment. They observed that judgement has been clearly Micah’s message to this point and felt it would be too great, too abrupt a break in thought to put a message of deliverance here, especially when another message of condemnation immediately follows in 3:1ff. That is Calvin’s view, for example. With some alterations in translation these interpreters have taken these two verses as another prophesy of the exile. According to this view, for example, the “pen” in the middle of verse 12, is Babylon.
Many others have taken the verses to be a message of hope and consolation, a promise of at least a temporary deliverance, indeed, as directly a prophesy of the deliverance of Jerusalem from Sennacherib’s invading army in 701 B.C. This seems clearly to be the right interpretation of the verses and now that the structure of Micah is more clearly understood as a balanced alternation of oracles of judgment and salvation, it is much easier to see vv. 12-13 as one of his oracles of salvation and not to be troubled by the abrupt shift in emphasis. That is typical of the book as a whole.
v.12 “pen” here, then is Jerusalem. The shepherd King of Israel is gathering his flock to protect it from marauders.
v.13 “gate” Cf. 1:12 Sennacherib got right to the gate of Jerusalem, bottled up the people in the city, but when the Lord acted on their behalf, they, who thought themselves doomed, walked out of the city gate with joy.
Now these two verses are a key summary of Micah’s theology and, in particular, a setting out of his theology over against the false theology of the corrupt leadership of the people. And it is all the more striking a statement of that theology because it amounts to such an abrupt reversal of the tone and subject of the previous material. A devastating invasion of Judah has already been prophesied in chapter 1: the destruction of many of the cities of Judah, the threatening of the capital itself, the subjugation of the land to a foreign power, and all of this as a divine judgment on the people’s sin. But now comes a specific forecast of a partial deliverance. It is an oracle that agrees specifically with what we know Isaiah also prophesied, and even told directly to Hezekiah in the face of the Assyrian approach.
This is a more specific prophecy of a more immediate deliverance. This is not one of the “new age” and “consummation” prophecies that we will find in Micah and Isaiah also. This is a more limited deliverance and in regard to a specific threat that has already been prophesied.
But, limited in scope as it may be, it encapsulates Micah’s theology and the theology of the prophets.
We have, first of all, the concept of the “remnant.”
In this particular case the “remnant” in view is the population that was able to take refuge in Jerusalem during the invasion of 701 B.C. They alone were spared the devastation that Sennacherib visited upon the rest of the nation of Judah. But the concept of the remnant is a theological/spiritual concept also. In the flow of history, God always preserves a remnant of his people who remain, by his grace, faithful to him. The eternal promises of the covenant are conveyed to future generations through this remnant.
Noah and his family were the original “remnant” but were followed, in turn, by Joshua and Caleb during the days of the wilderness, people like Boaz during the days of the Judges, and the 7,000 who did not bow the knee to Baal during the days of Ahab and Jezebel. Now, we have a remnant to be spared from the devastation of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah. On the historical level the remnant was the population preserved in Jerusalem, spiritually it is a picture of that faithful remnant of men and women loyal to God’s covenant in a nation mostly gone over to unbelief and disobedience.
There was a remnant in Jesus’ day that still worshipped God according to the pure faith. Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna were among its members. And throughout human history it has remained the same. Rarely and never for long periods has the church as a whole been sound, faithful, devout. There are the ordinary illustrations of this — medieval Christianity, for example, or the history of Anglicanism from the 18th century. But, fact is, it is a reality everywhere sooner or later and, usually, sooner. I remember Ian Hamilton telling me that never, in all its history, has the Church of Scotland been spiritually sound. “Spiritually sound” does not mean that every single member is definitely converted. Rather it means that the church holds to and preaches sound doctrine, that it fosters true Christian living, that everywhere it seeks the interest of God in its people, and that its people widely give evidence of living faith in Christ. That would have been true of the Presbyterian Church in the 19th century in the USA, for example, though, sadly, it is not today. But, Ian’s point was that there has always needed to be a remnant in the Church of Scotland and regularly it has sloughed off its remnant (the secessions of the 18th century [Erskines]; the Disruption of 1843]).
It is one of the differences between false teaching and orthodoxy that, in its Christian version, false teaching is regularly, not always, but regularly inclusivist not exclusivist. It does not respect the antithesis between faith and unbelief. It does not concern itself with the question of false faith, it confidently assumes most everyone’s salvation. So the false teachers in Micah’s day. But Micah assumes that only a small portion of the total people of God are actually to be saved.
Now, this doctrine of the remnant is a dangerous doctrine, and one we need to handle very carefully. It does not mean that minorities in the church are ipso facto favored of God. Groups can be small because they are so unappealing and their teaching muddy, false, or punishingly dull. Among minorities there is always a tendency to associate small size with proof of faithfulness to God, proof, that is, of their being the remnant. But, in the Bible, one does not seek to be the remnant, one is as a result of faithfulness to the Word of God when the larger world of the church is walking away from that Word. The remnant in the Bible is not a denomination or a party, it is the accumulated total of the faithful in an unfaithful time. It would be a mistake to identify the remnant in any sort of outward way, and the desire to do so works against the very faithfulness and humility before God that is characteristic of those who belong to the remnant as it is described in the Bible.
Still, it remains the case, most of the time in biblical and church history, in most places, the faithful are a minority of the church. So it was in Micah’s day and so it is today. Within the Christian church in its various parts you have killing errors introduced and defended and preached; you have naked rebellion against the law of God not just tolerated but actively promoted; you have a dulling conformity to spiritual indifference that has put vast multitudes to sleep; or you have positive error around which multitudes gather enthusiastically and you have seldom or never any serious warning about the possibility of an insincere profession, though those warnings are given very often in Scripture.
How many true believers are there in the Christian church today — no one knows, but it is clear that it is a much smaller number than that who claim in some form to be Christians and are recognized as such by their churches.
There are any number of applications of this doctrine. One is that it is no proof of anything that a majority believes it to be true. It is more likely a disproof than a proof! As Spurgeon once put it:
“Long ago I ceased to count heads. Truth is usually in the minority in this evil world.” [cited in Forgotten Spurgeon, 138]
Second, we have every right to be suspicious when Christians advise us to alter our creed to adjust it to modern “insights.” The church has been doing that for thousands of years, and it is always the “remnant”, the community that remains faithful to the Word of God and not to its culture that preserves the true faith for the next generation.
But the major encouragement for all of us who wish to remain faithful to the Word of God in a day when the church is choosing to follow the world instead is that this is, in fact, an ancient story, and that in remaining loyal to what the world and even the church in large part considers outmoded ideas we are aligning ourselves with the prophets and with the faithful in Elijah’s day and with true believers before the reformation and so on. Bible-believing, and Bible-living Christians can pretty well count on being in the minority, even within the church. So it has almost always been, so it is today. But God, the Scripture teaches us, stands with the remnant, not with the vast bulk of the church that has made its peace with the world.
We also have here, as a part of Micah’s theology, a repudiation of human leadership as a foundation of real and lasting hope.
Micah has already made much of the sins and betrayals of the leadership of Judah. But now he goes still further. Even the remnant, gathered in Jerusalem, will get no help from human leadership.
This seems to be the gist of 12b. It is a surprising turn. We have first, “I will bring them together like sheep in a pen.” The “I” is clearly a reference to God, there is no other antecedent for the pronoun in the context. And here God is the shepherd of his people and the pen is the place where he puts them so that they would be safe. The shepherd would bring his sheep into the pen at night to protect them from predators. That image is clear and helpful.
But then there is the abrupt shift. “like a flock in its pasture; the place will throng with people.” What is that image designed to convey? Dr. Waltke suggests that the image is of a disorganized and leaderless crowd. In the field the flock moves as it will, no leader directs it. And crowded into the city of Jerusalem to escape the destruction of Sennacherib, the people will hide behind walls but have no one to provide them protection or effective organization. Remember, this will be Hezekiah himself, the King of Judah in 701 B.C. But we know that Hezekiah was no match for Sennacherib. He had nothing to propose, good man that he was, no plan, no strategy, no use to make of the people, no way to turn them into an effective fighting force. The king was just as much a prisoner and a hostage to events over which he had no control as everyone else in the city at that time.
Often in the Scripture we read such things as this:
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in princes. (Psalm 118:8-9)
And that is the point here, in its negative side. If we are relying upon men, the strength of men, the wisdom of men, the goodness of men, to get ourselves out of our dilemma, to rescue us, to save us, to make us and our children happy, we are leaning on a broken reed. Church history teaches us this one hundred times over. If we must rely on men, we are doomed. Men, even good men, have never been able to keep the church on track, never been able to keep it faithful through the generations, never been able to restore it when she has fallen into error or spiritual indifference. God may use men, but men by themselves cannot save us or the church.
This is Micah’s theology and it must be ours as well. And, I doubt we fully appreciate how difficult this is for us really to believe and practice. We cannot see God, but we can see gifted men and we line up behind them and count on them to a degree we probably never truly appreciate. It is certainly true in the church world. Particularly perhaps in our media age. Churches have more and more receded from view and particular men have come to the forefront. In architecture, pulpits have gradually been shrunk to the size of a small Plexiglas stand and the man now strides across a stage, altogether the commanding presence. On television, the congregation becomes merely the backdrop as the camera focuses on a particular man. Men retire or leave a work or a church for some other ministry and the thing collapses overnight. There was a large PCA church in Florida, more than a thousand people on a Sunday morning, built around the ministry of a popular radio preacher. He left to do something else and the church is now a comparative handful of people, a hundred or so, as the rest fled in search of another man to do for them what this first man did.
Hezekiah was a good king, but he could not deliver the people of God from their troubles.
Then, third, on the other side of that same coin, if men cannot save us, God can, and will according to his covenant.
This is the force of v. 13. But we miss the full force of this description of the Lord as “One who breaks open the way,” if we failed to notice the allusion — which any Hebrew reader of the Scripture in Micah’s time could hardly fail to notice — to David’s reference to the Lord “breaking out against his enemies” (the Philistines) in 2 Samuel 5:20,24. You remember the situation there. Shortly after becoming king of all Israel and capturing Jerusalem and making it his capital, David went to war against the Philistines. David had inquired of the Lord as to whether he should join battle against the Philistine army arrayed against him and the Lord had commanded him to fight. And he defeated the Philistines. Then, we read, that David said,
“As waters break out, the Lord has broken out against my enemies before me.”
So that place was called Baal Perazim, which means, “the Lord who breaks out.” It is the same word in 2 Samuel 5:20 as in Micah 2:13. The reference in Micah, of course, is of the Lord breaking out against the Assyrians, when the angel of the Lord destroyed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in their camp outside of Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:35). The Lord took matters into his own hands, in a moment destroyed the enemy army that threatened the remnant of his people and the next day the population, so long bottled up in the city with little food or water remaining, walked out of the city gates with joy. Another exodus — going out — had taken place. God had brought his people out of bondage.
The second half of the verse is a spiritual picture of this procession out of the city, the Lord at the head of his people (not the human king, but the King Shepherd of Israel).
And how often this has happened in the history of the church, the Lord intervening to save his remnant and his covenant with his people: the exodus, the manna, the conquest, the judges, the return from the exile, the coming of John the Baptist and the Lord himself, the Reformation, the Awakening, how next?
But, of course, chiefly and above all of this, he “broke out” against our enemies in the Lord Christ who came to defeat our foes who had us in their grip and bondage forever.
Sing the dear Savior’s glorious fame,
Who bears the Breaker’s wondrous name;
Sweet name, and it becomes him well,
Who breaks down sin, guilt, death, and hell.
A mighty Breaker he,
Who broke my chains, and set me free;
A gracious Breaker to my soul;
He breaks, and oh, He makes me whole!
He breaks through every gloomy cloud,
Which can my soul with darkness shroud;
He breaks the bars of every snare,
Which hellish foes for me prepare.
Great Breaker, oh, Thy love impart
Daily, to break my stony heart!
Oh, break it, Lord, and enter in,
And break, oh, break, the power of sin!
(Samuel Medley 1738-1799)
Not the greatest poetry, but Micah’s theology without a doubt. The tendency to trust in man, ourselves and others, is pervasive in the church because it is universal in the world and the fundamental tendency of sin — to turn one’s attention to man instead of to God, to the creature rather than the creator.
Micah is warning us that no man can do for us what must be done. Only the Lord can deliver us from enemies as powerful as ours — the sin that exposes us to God’s judgments and those judgments themselves. Only the Lord can, and he will, for all who trust in him. Judah was concerned with all the wrong things. She should be looking to her God and she should be practicing her faith in God in the life of prayer. And we should do the very same thing. Prayer is more important than what minister Christians have, or what president a nation has, for men are simply not capable of supporting the life of God’s people in this world. God alone can do that!
Human efforts can sometimes be very impressive. In the short term they can make us think that we have achieved some significant success. The reign of Hezekiah, for example, was a time of considerable economic prosperity, for which the government no doubt took credit, as governments do. Hezekiah regained control of cities that had been lost to the Philistines, built up the defenses of the kingdom as a whole, expanded agriculture and trade, and entering into international alliances to protect Judah from Assyria. He also made preparations to safeguard Jerusalem in the event of attack, ordering his engineers to dig a tunnel that would bring water from the Gihon spring into the city itself, a distance of nearly 600 yards through solid rock. It was a remarkable engineering achievement because the excavators used hand tools, began at opposite ends and met in the middle. (There is an inscription in 8th century Hebrew script, twenty feet from the city entrance, that described the breaking through when the two ends were finally joined in the middle.
However all of this proved to be nothing and less than nothing. Had the angel of the Lord not intervened, Jerusalem would have starved and eventually surrendered, as she did when the Babylonians did the same to her more than a century later.
Whether we are speaking of the fortunes of a nation, of the entire church, or of our own families or individual lives, it is always the same: it is better to trust in the Lord than to take refuge in man.